By Swami Harshananda
Vaitaraṇi (‘[the river] to be crossed’)
The purāṇas describe that those sinners who are destined to go to hell, have to cross this foetid river, full of blood, hairs and bones. While crossing it they are tormented terribly.
It is also the name of a cow that is donated to a brāhmaṇa during the antyeṣṭi (death-rites), which is supposed to help the soul of the dead to cross the river Vaitaraṇī.
A river in Kaliṅga (the modern Orissa State) has been called Vaitaraṇī. It is sometimes identified either with the river Mahānadī or the Betrani.
The ekādaśī of the dark fortnight of the month of Mārgaśīrṣā or Agrahāyaṇa (November/December) is called Vaitaraṇī. A special vrata (religious observance) called Vaitaraṇīvrata is observed on this day by worshipping a dark cow so that it will help the observer to cross the Vaitaraṇī River after death. This vrata has to be observed for one year in three periods of four months.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore